Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Marriage of Maria Braun

(Die Ehe der Maria Braun, Germany, 1979)

This was a huge disappointment, and I can’t say why without issuing this


Maria gets married as Germany is falling apart in 1945. Her husband leaves at once for the front, where he is presumed dead. Maria looks for him and never believes he’s dead, but has to get on with her life. She becomes a bar girl, picking up American GIs. Then hubby returns, finds her with a black soldier, she kills the soldier, he takes the rap and goes to jail. While she waits for him, she becomes a big success in business.

That’s very bare-bones. It’s all handled wonderfully. Maria has been described by some reviewers as a monster, but I don’t see it. I liked her a lot. She is very smart. She is realistic. She is ambitious, but she is also scrupulously honest. She never lies to anyone, she tells them exactly what they’re in for. She can only love her absent husband … who she really doesn’t know at all. Perhaps it’s safer for her that way. He’s in jail, he can’t hurt her, and neither can anyone she doesn’t give her heart to. Cold? I guess so, but why not?

There is a lot of high-falutin’ critical talk that this and all of Fassbinder’s movies are allegories about post-war Germany. We don’t see what Maria went through during the war to wish to protect herself this way, but we know it must have been awful, simply because it was awful for all Germans in the last years.

Now I must describe the last 5 minutes of the film, 5 minutes that ruined it all for me. Maria is with her husband at last, in the big house she has bought. She is excited, they are going to make love, something that hasn’t happened except on their wedding day. She lights a cigarette from the gas stove, then blows out the flame. Shortly after that she goes into the kitchen to light another, and there is an explosion. Maria ist kaput. Movie over.

I just don’t get it. Roger Ebert says it’s all about the randomness of life. Well, fuck that. I’ve seen that principle demonstrated where randomness becomes a plot element. It isn’t fair to end an interesting story by saying “and then they all got run over by a truck. The End.” (Okay, something very like that happened in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but the director made it work. It also happened in the aggressively awful Japon, and I wanted to find the director and beat the crap out of him. This was one of those beat-the-crap-out-of-him moments.)

The question that occurred to me immediately was … did she kill herself? Was she that afraid to find out what her husband was really like? I mean, we saw her lighting a cigarette from the stove before, and she turned off the gas instantly. What an extraordinary thing to do, to blow out the gas flame and leave the gas on. Who would do that? Excitement and inattentiveness just don’t explain it for me. I was left with the feeling she deliberately left it on … and the only motive I can think of is suicide. And if that is so, I hated it. Just hated it.

But let’s end on a positive note here. Hanna Schygulla is one of the great screen beauties, in my opinion, and the costume designer dressed her superbly. She looked stunning in everything she wore. Seldom do I notice costumes in a movie—hey, I’m a guy—but these just knocked my socks off.